A season like no other can propel UConn to most NCAA women’s basketball title races

MINNEAPOLIS – UConn’s women’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, sat in his seat in the media room at Atlanta’s McCamish Pavilion, arms crossed, his deep voice and signature demeanor replaced by something yet ever for the 11-time national champion coach: helplessness and a sense of defeat.

Auriemma’s Huskies just lost to Georgia Tech 57-44, their first loss to an undefeated team in nearly a decade. It took them two weeks to lose top 2021 player Azzi Fudd to a leg problem and four days out of 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers to a knee injury that will sideline nearly three month. Adding salt to the wound, Nika Muhl had to miss the day before the match with a leg injury.

Knowing that they would be three short-lived bodyguards in the near future was hard enough to let go of; but the way UConn played – an anemic opening game that produced just five points in the fourth half – was far from what Auriemma and the rest of the basketball world have grown accustomed to with the Huskies over the past three decades. The UConn players never appeared in post-game interviews despite always doing so after tough defeats over the years, and what Auriemma said afterward was as astounding as the performance itself. their.

“What I see is a somewhat dull team. And that’s all for me,” Auriemma said. “Somehow, somehow, at this point in time, I don’t have the ability to influence my players to make sure we’re in a better place mentally and physically and playing this kind of game.” basketball that we need to play.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be fixed. I really don’t.”

If you had told Auriemma that that night his Huskies would be healthy by the end of February and come back to life in time to advance to the show’s first national title game appearance since 2016, he has may not believe you. But that’s UConn’s position, five regular-season losses and a pair in the NCAA tournament winning first seed after that. The Huskies will take on South Carolina, which has spent the entire season at No. 1 in the country, on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) in their quest for their 12th national championship. And if they can pull it off, it will cap one of their most unlikely titles to date.

For turbulence like the 2021-22 campaign for the Huskies – seven of their nine alternate players have missed at least three games due to illness or injury – it begins with lofty expectations. inside and outside. After appearing in the 2021 Finals with 3rd seed Arizona, UConn returned to most of its main contributors, delivering a recruiting class stacked by Fudd and placed 2nd in the finals. pre-season poll.

Things weren’t quite as smooth at the start. The team relied too much on Buecker, and in the 73-57 loss to the Gamecocks in the Bahamas, the foul brought in just three points in the fourth quarter, even with the sophomore keeper on the ring.

But December and January bring challenges that Auriemma claims he hasn’t experienced since arriving at Storrs. It’s not just because the Huskies lost star power in Bueckers and Fudd in 19 and 11 games, respectively. But between Muhl, Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Dorka Juhasz and Caroline Ducharme also short of time, combined with the COVID-19 outbreak over the holidays, UConn was at one point down to six players in practice – required practice players to participate in drills with them – as well as in games, including their 72-59 loss to unranked Oregon afterwards. When they returned from Eugene, Muhl described the team as “going through hell.”

After losses to Georgia Tech (December 9) and Louisville (December 19), the Huskies fell out of the top 10 for the first time since the 2004-05 season. Then, when they fell to Villanova in February, they recorded a 169-game winning streak against the conference teams.

“December and January have been some of the toughest months I’ve faced here,” said Nelson-Ododa. “You never know who’s going to be out, who’s going to be in. … Having to go through all of that and figure out what our roles are and what we’re going to have to bring in is definitely a test piece. challenge for us.”

With their defense corps exhausted, the team members had to play out of position. Williams and Evina Westbrook ran the score when the Bueckers and Muhl were out. Newcomer Ducharme was forced into oversized roleplaying as the team struggled to replace the goalscorers the Bueckers provided, and she largely met the challenge.

“We had to change the way we train because we have limited bodies, change the way we play in games,” said Nelson-Ododa. “We went through a couple of weeks where we had to really start over when we were two months into the season.”

The typical 40-pointer hits of the past are gone too. Games in the Big East were tighter than usual, and for the first time for many players, they had to learn how to win ugly games – something they couldn’t do before games like Georgia Tech. Auriemma’s message during those winter months is to keep walking and their only way out is to stick together.



UConn played late to knock out defending champion Stanford, setting up a title match against South Carolina.

It’s hard to discern at times, but with Fudd returning at the end of January and the Bueckers’ recovery going relatively smoothly, a glimmer remains at the end of the tunnel that the team could enter a crucial period. of the season in a completely healthy manner.

Auriemma said: “This team needs to be a lot more mature. “Obviously, I think they either have or we won’t play [Sunday] night. If we were still the same, if we were the same team mentally and physically as we were then, I don’t think we would still be playing. “

Victory over DePaul (January 26) and Tennessee (February 6) rekindled confidence internally, as did games in the conference game before the Bueckers return at the end of February. And once she’s back in the ring, the team around her has evolved into a balanced, defensive minded group in which players understand how to excel in their roles and win. The Bueckers’ burst of 27 points in UConn’s side double win over NC State in the Elite Eight represented the Huskies’ most impressive individual performance in the NCAA, but the rest of them was a gritty effort. by the organizing committee.

It wasn’t simply a contrast to the way things were that night at Georgia Tech; According to the players, it was a direct byproduct of it, despite how Auriemma felt at the moment.

Even with UConn now healthy and battle-tested, Auriemma doesn’t quite believe he has the best team in the NCAA. He admitted after the team beat defending NCAA champion Stanford in the national semifinals that the Huskies needed Cardinal off their game A to have a chance at winning.

However, Auriemma had trained long enough for him to know they were here for a reason. And this time around, their mid-season outburst has ensured that they don’t have to go 1 in a row or go undefeated or have an unprecedented winning streak to earn it.

And that could be what makes the difference.

“You don’t have to be the best team for a long time,” Auriemma said. “You just have to be the best team for 40 minutes or play the best for 40 minutes.”

https://www.espn.com/womens-college-basketball/story/_/id/33655734/season-no-other-catapult-uconn-most-improbable-ncaa-women-basketball-title-runs A season like no other can propel UConn to most NCAA women’s basketball title races

Luke Plunkett

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